Rape survivor Jade Reindl argues that “Jackie”, the victim at the center of Sabrina Rudin Erdely’s disputed Rolling Stone piece about rape at the University of Virginia, was violated a second time when she asked Erdely to remove her from the story and Erdely refused:
Here’s the thing about rape that most people seem to get: it’s violating. It requires a lack of consent. It’s an event full of pain and regret. Here’s the thing about sharing a rape victim’s story without their permission that most people don’t seem to get: It’s violating. It requires a lack of consent. It’s an event full of pain and regret.
If someone agreed to have sex with you earlier in the day, but when it came time to actually do it they no longer consented, and you had sex with them anyway, was it rape? When you share the story of a rape victim without her consent, even if she formerly consented, it is a complete re-violation of her personal space and narrative. It doesn’t matter why Jackie, the subject of Rolling Stone’s article about UVA and sexual assault, later retracted her statements. And the aim of this article is not to justify or analyze her hesitation. What I’m saying is this: By publishing an article that the victim retracted her support of, Rolling Stone essentially violated Jackie, and every other survivor, all over again.
Sarah Kliff also considers this an ethical violation on Erdely’s part:
Publishing a story about a rape victim against her will is dangerous, and arguably unethical, journalism.
It goes completely against the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, a respected advisory group at Columbia University’s Journalism School, guidelines for how to report on sexual assault. There is an entire section that directs reporters to “respect a potential interviewee’s right to say no.”
“Be fair and realistic. Don’t coerce, cajole, trick or offer remuneration,” the guidelines instruct. If Rolling Stone published the story against Jackie’s will, that is a terrible mistake on the magazine’s part — and a violation of the ethical guidelines reporters should follow when reporting difficult, and sensitive stories about rape. And it’s coupled with the fact that Rolling Stone didn’t track down the accused rapists.
In Hanna Rosin’s view, in a post we noted last night, one of Erdely’s biggest errors was in making a promise to Jackie that she, as a journalist, should not have kept:
Jackie told the Post that she felt “manipulated” by Erdely. She said that she was “overwhelmed” by sitting through interviews with her and asked to be taken out of the story, but Erdely said it would go forward anyway. Jackie said she “felt completely out of control of my own story.” Erdely has implied that she made an agreement with Jackie that she would tell her story but not try to contact her assailants. Rolling Stone explained in their statement today: “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”
Such agreements are apparently not uncommon. In survivors’ groups, advocates advise victims to strike these kinds of deals with reporters so they don’t lose control of their own stories, or anger their assailants, both of which they consider paramount to healing. But this creates an impossible situation for journalists: Ask too many questions and you lose your source. But don’t ask enough and you end up in this situation, with a story that’s falling apart.
But what really puzzles Rosin is that the account Jackie’s friends gave to the WaPo last week, though very different from the one Jackie told Erdely, was more than horrible enough to get the point across:
The baffling thing here is, if what Jackie told Andy is true, that would have made an explosive enough story about campus sexual violence. A group of men force a freshman to perform oral sex. She reports it to the university and they don’t investigate. That’s a disturbing story. But if Andy is to be believed, that means Jackie told an exaggerated story to Erdely, and that Erdely was all too happy to create an even more perfect victim, one who was brutally gang raped and then left at the curb by her so called friends, thus further traumatizing her, and leaving her to fend for herself in a culture too backward for progressive thought.
Too-good-to-leave-unembellished. Libby Nelson wonders if Jackie was properly informed of what she was getting herself into:
If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world. You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you’re saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away. And if you aren’t ready to deal with that, you shouldn’t talk to me.
I don’t know if anyone would consent to that. And I don’t know if I could really shoot myself in the foot with that much honesty. No decent human wants to appear to doubt the word of a rape victim. But if you don’t do that work in private, you make it that much easier for the rest of the world to do it in public. That’s what Rolling Stone — and Jackie — are about to learn.
Like Rosin, Peter Suderman suspects Erdely of erasing the line between journalism and advocacy:
Advocates for rape victims and sexual assault awareness understandably tend to prioritize support, communication, and community building; they do not have a great responsibility to doubt, to verify, and to rigorously check all the minute details of the accounts they hear or share. But journalists do. To be sure, this sort of checking is almost always difficult, time-consuming, and stressful. Inevitably, some mistakes will be made (I’ve certainly made a few regretful errors of my own). There are tradeoffs between time and accuracy. But the more sensational the story, the more shocking and potentially consequential its allegations, the more that effort is necessary—especially with a long-form account that is not under the pressures and deadlines of daily journalism, and especially when the subject and major source of the story tries to back out, as Jackie apparently did.
The way Morrissey sees it, that’s the core of the problem:
[T]he damage wasn’t limited to just “Jackie.” The fraternities at UVa got shut down for no good reason, the one fraternity named got vandalized on top of that, and several men came under suspicion for a crime that they not only didn’t commit but maynot have happened at all. That is what happens when activists hijack journalism to further their agenda at the expense of the truth, a value which clearly wasn’t a high priority for either Erdely or anyone at Rolling Stone. If the truth had been their agenda, they would have doubled their efforts to make sure their story was solid, rather than simply act as stenographers for someone who told Erdely what she not only wanted to hear, but actively campaigned to find.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper, on the other hand, blames Rolling Stone and the magazine industry writ large for preferring sensationalism over facts:
There are few industries as cynical and craven as magazine publishing. They love a good sex scandal or true crime story. You can watch out for the next longform piece of a college campus rape story that’s corroborated. Do not believe for A SECOND that Rolling Stone did not speak to alleged rapists because they were trying to be “sensitive”. It was because they were abiding by a bad promise they made to “Jackie” to not contact her alleged assailants. If they did contact those supposed assailants, they would lose a sensational and lurid first person account of a gang rape. If Jackie rescinded her claims, then the magazine would lose its hook to lure readers into a story about the much-reported — and possibly inflated — “epidemic” of sexual assaults on campus.